Janus: A Summing Up
by Arthur Koestler
Random House, 354 pp., $10.00
Theodor Schwann, a founder of cell theory in the mid-nineteenth century, described life as “nothing but the form under which substances capable of imbibition crystallize.” This kind of reductionism did have a certain vogue in Schwann’s day, and its vestiges continue to color and constrain biological thought—most notably in the early and heady days of DNA, when some over-zealous biochemists thought they might render all of life’s complexity as a one-way readout of instructions coded on chromosomes.
Arthur Koestler believes that we stand at the brink of disaster, mired in “the sterile deserts of reductionist philosophy.” In this summing up of all his writings on science, Koestler has appointed himself irrigator of the deserts and has attempted to sow seeds, using his concept of “hierarchy.” Koestler identifies as two main obstructions to understanding first his own version of Darwinian theory (which is very different from Darwin’s or anything that a modern biologist would recognize); and second the penchant for causal determinism that closes our minds to psychic and acausal phenomena.
The structures of our world, Koestler argues, are ordered into hierarchies, or, as he calls them, “holarchies.” Each item, or “holon,” is both a self-contained entity and an element of the next level. Koestler has named his book for the double role played by each holon: “The holons are…Janus-like entities: the face turned toward the higher levels in the holarchy is that of a subordinate part in a larger system; the face turned toward the lower levels shows a quasi-autonomous whole in its own right.” The reductionist program is bankrupt because each level has both autonomy and its own unique contribution to make to the next level; the whole system cannot be reduced to molecules in motion at its base.
For Koestler the human dilemma is just one example of hierarchical ordering. As Janus-faced entities, we are caught between self-assertive tendencies appropriate to our level and integrative urges leading up toward the next.
We are faced with a contrast between the mature restraint of the self-assertive tendency and the immature vagaries of the integrative tendency…. Both the glory and the pathology of the human condition derive from our powers of self-transcendence, which are equally capable of turning us into artists, saints or killers, but more likely into killers.
As our loyalties are split between self and group, so too are our brains. The neocortex, seat of our intellect, has superimposed itself upon the older reptilian and mammalian brain. But—and this is our particular tragedy—we evolved so rapidly that the neocortex was unable to establish proper integration with and control over the primitive brain.
Homo sapiens may be an aberrant biological species, an evolutionary misfit, afflicted by an endemic disorder…. There is a flaw, some potentially fatal engineering error built into our native equipment…. This is the hideous but plausible hypothesis which any serious inquiry into man’s condition has to face.
Koestler cites symptoms of this disorder: infanticide and human sacrifice, our lack …